Writing Dialogue: 10 Tips to Help You (video) - Mark Crilley

Dialogue serves many purposes in a story. It establishes characters and their relationships to each other. It also helps to set the tone and further the plot.

Here are a few tips to make sure your dialogue is up to par:

  • Be wary of the amount of text you have per page. It’s very easy to overload your reader with excessive amounts of text.

    • As a general rule, you don’t want more than 210 words per page. This means if you have two panels, stick to 105 words max for each. Three panels, 70 words per panel. Six panels, 35 words… Even Alan Moore, notorious for his walls of text, adheres to this rule.

    • Similarly, keep to a max of 30 words per balloon or risk making the page look dialogue heavy and intimidating to the reader.

    • Also, having more than 3 balloons per panel will generally make things look really busy. Of course you can break any of these rules intentionally to make things look claustrophobic or cluttered.

  • Determine the motivation of every character in the scene. What is their objective? What are they trying to achieve? Their dialogue should reflect this.

  • Understand how your dialogue will look on your page. While you might not be lettering your comic yourself, it’s still important to visualize how your dialogue will appear on the page. Check out the chapter on lettering for related tips.

  • Avoid repeating the same word too much. Using the same word over and over makes your text boring to read and makes that word awkwardly stand out. Everyone has their words that they repeat more than they should. One of mine is “just”. To fix this, do a search (ctrl + f in your word document) for words you think you might be overusing throughout your book and replace them with synonyms. Here’s a good crowd sourced thesaurus to help you pick words.

  • Dialogue doesn’t need to sound like a real life conversation. A common misconception is that dialogue in comics needs to function exactly like a real life conversation. Pick up any comic and you’ll realize this simply is not the case. Real conversations often meander around without a clear direction or goal. Having your characters “um” and “ah” for five pages would be boring and a major waste of space. That said…

  • Dialogue should sound natural. The easiest way to test this is by reading the dialogue out loud to yourself. Does it make sense? Does it flow well into the next line?

  • Be concise. You have a very limited amount of space in your comic for dialogue so you want to be as efficient as possible. There are a few ways to achieve this:

    • If a line of dialogue isn’t conveying something to the reader, either about the story, the setting or the characters, cut it. Writers sometimes think they have to show absolutely every moment of a story. This just isn’t true. Small talk between characters that adds nothing for the reader is just a waste of space. On the other hand, small talk that helps establish your characters and their relationship to each other, is not.

    • Don’t say the same thing multiple times. It’s redundant and it wastes space to repeat yourself unnecessarily. Saying something the exact same way but with different words doesn’t add anything to the story and just clogs up your page. There’s no need to convey the same information twice to a reader. (See what I’m doing here?)

    • Start your dialogue at, or right before, the important moment. You don’t have to show your reader an entire conversation. Get right to the good stuff or risk boring your readers.

  • Characters should have a unique voice. Just like real people, your characters should each sound like their own person. If everyone has the same dialogue quirks and use the same phrases, your characters will feel boring and samey. If one of your characters is highly intelligent, they probably wouldn’t use slang words when they talk where as a kid raised on the street may use them all the time. Once you figure out the voice of your characters, keep that voice consistent.

Avoiding the Infodump

This is the mistake I see writers make the most. Writers like to have their characters explain absolutely everything to each other as a means of informing the reader. This is known as the dreaded infodump and tends to just end up boring your readers. The infodump can usually be spotted by the use of phrases like “as you know…”.

There are a few things to note when it comes to exposition:

  • You don’t have to tell your reader everything. Have a little faith that people will be able to figure things out without all the little details. A little ambiguity leaves room for the imagination of the reader to run wild with ideas. Let them do the hard work while you focus on what makes your story interesting. This will also engage your reader as they attempt to piece everything together. I really like the iceberg analogy. Build a massive exciting world but only reveal the tip to the reader.

  • Replace your exposition with imagery. Comics are a visual medium and so the “show don’t tell” rule applies well here. Not only does imagery convey the same point in a more interesting manner, it’s also more likely to convince the reader. Which do you think would have more impact: having two characters talk about Steve being a jerk, or actually showing Steve be a jerk?

  • If you absolutely NEED to tell the audience something in conversation, make it sound believable. Your dialogue doesn’t have to be realistic but it does have to sound natural. Would your characters actually talk that way?